Although the channel is only a one day event, it seems more like a multi-day race where the swim is just the final stage and all the other days are equally if not more significant. I found that the most interesting things happened in the two months or so in the build up to the swim so have written a more detailed account about that side of it elsewhere (click here). Meanwhile here is a brief description of what happened on the day itself.
It’s 7.30pm on Tuesday the 29th of July and I’m at Hammersmith on my way to Barnes. The day has been quiet and unstressful so far but the moment has come for the last call to the pilot to confirm that the swim is on for the next morning. There’s no turning back now. The original pilot was declared medically unfit to take swimmers on the very day I drove to Dover the week before, but the new one, who in fact manages all the swims, has been very accommodating. In fact if anything rather too much so and Instead of being told what to do I hear him say ‘good evening, Karteek, so what are you planning?’ The whole year so far has been one of being proactive and just trying to seize the moment without hesitating too much so I can only reply to him that if the weather is good, as he had previously thought, then I am ready. One has to sound confident and in control in these situations but there will be plenty of time later to assess the full implications of all this!
We’re to be down at the Marina Office car park at 9am ready to start the swim at 10am. Soon I’m wide awake lying on a duvet on the floor of Sahadeva’s room and desperately trying to get some sleep. This is the start of it and one of the moments I had been avoiding for 5 years! For some reason when I imagined doing it again I would remember it being the night before and trying to get some rest with this momentous task looming just a few hours away. Often we used to have to be down at the harbour by 2 or 3am ready to motor round to the beach for an early start. This time, however, it all seems a bit different so maybe something has changed and it doesn’t need to be always like it was. Soon I hear the boys coming back from a class, relaxed and laughing. Prachar is in town and Sahadeva has been doing a big running workshop. Well this is probably the best place to be. We fix our departure time for 6am and soon am drifting off to sleep on the kitchen floor with a gentle breeze blowing in through the open garden door. I actually manage to sleep which is unusual before swims and before long we are on our way to Dover. In the past a kind of reverence built up in the final stages as if one had to tread very carefully around the sleeping beast of the Channel. For days on end you might have been waiting and seeing all your plans fall apart as you cancelled helpers and enlisted other ones and saw money drain away spent on extra nights, meals and endless other things. It seemed to be leaching everything out of you on every level. Perhaps some of that stemmed from fear but anyway this time it is all very relaxed and we are calmly driving down the motorway on the way to the seaside.
We still need to stop for the helpers’ and swimmer’s food. I’ve never left it this late before but this is how it has turned out and it’s great that everything is more easy-going this time. I had already been through a week waiting for good weather the previous week in Folkestone and if the swim had happened that week there would have been ample time to get organised. I shoot round Sainsbury’s with a trolley and, although there is a channel swim starting in less than 2 hours, the first thing that catches my eye are some nice looking two-for the-price of one notebooks, which I am sure will come in very handy half way to France. One never knows when inspiration might descend.
We even get breakfast at the Sainsbury’s cafe. I’ve never had much to eat before a swim but part of me knows that since I normally get sea sick early on, if there is nothing in there then it is even worse (apologies for these details – it does get far worse but you will be spared most of those details). I don’t tell Prachar that am only eating so that I can be more sick later on as he is still worried about how he is going to find the motion on the boat! He and Bahumanya take their pills and even put on some interesting looking acupressure bands that are on sale in the supermarket. In fact nobody has any problems with sea sickness for the whole crossing which is a relief.
We arrive at the car park and I go in to the office to get the parking permit for swimmers’ cars. I see the forecast written up on a board there talking of force 4 to 5 winds. That does not sound good at all and I wonder if I will have to go back out to the car and tell the boys that it is not happening. They are in good spirits and looking forward to going out but I know the Channel can scupper the best laid plans in an instant. The man in charge says that two other swim teams have bought parking tickets so am encouraged and just go ahead.
There is no sign of Mike, the pilot, on the quay where we had arranged to meet, so again I wonder if perhaps given the weather conditions he hasn’t bothered turning up at all. Then I see two other Channel boats way down below me in the marina and head down the steel ladder to have a look. It turns out Mike is waiting for us on his boat Gallivant so soon we are loading all the food, clothing and drinks for the next 24 hours on to the back of the boat where we have our own special quarters. Everything is super relaxed which really takes the pressure off this part which I usually find so worrying. Like I said, when you imagine doing it again and weighing it all up there are certain troublesome images and memories that come back and everything surrounding getting on the boat and heading out for the beach is often enough to put me off. More so for some reason than the prospect of swimming for hours.
Soon we are motoring out to Shakespeare beach which is to be the starting point. In the past we often used to have to go for 30 minutes or so right out to where the Channel tunnel starts in order to catch the tide. This time it is just a short trip and it’s all very calm. I’m next to the wheel with Mike for a few moments and he says that ‘it’s so flat it’s as if it has been ironed out’. This is great encouragement, as although later it never seems like this, my mind is happy and believes it is a good day. Mike asks what number this will be. ‘It’s an addiction you know’, he says, and although I know it’s more or less the complete opposite it’s all quite light-hearted and breaks the ice a bit.
There is very little ceremony now which is great as makes it seem less of a huge event. It’s morning, the sun is shining (usually we start during the night), everyone is chatting away and I’m calmly putting on a little vaseline to stop the chafing. There is no big 15 minute countdown to when I need to jump in to the blackness and swim to the beach. I venture down on to the gunwale and see that the beach is very near. I wonder if it is time to start and ask Mike. Again all is very calm and I’m not sure if he replies but it looks like it is time so I jump in and swim the 25m or so into the beach.
A very quick moment of meditation and then it’s hell for leather for France. In previous swims I’ve tried all sorts of visualisations, for example I’ve imagined sea monsters chasing me or being part of an army of swimmers, but this time I’m just keeping my head down and blasting it out. I start off singing the invocation* and then more or less keep singing it for the next 19 hours! When singing horizontally in a ‘washing machine’ there are a few places where you are not sure if you sang it correctly and you wonder if you repeated certain lines the correct number of times. So each time I finished I would decide to sing it afresh but with full concentration.
I feel like I’m swimming fast and am full of energy. In fact I’m surprised they are not commenting on it or telling me to slow down. They just seem to be looking at the view! I imagine when we stop for the first drink they will tell me I’m actually on world record pace! Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. We were doing alright but with the strong tides the pilot could already see after a few hours that it was going to be a 16 to 18 hour swim. I’m sure if I had known that early on I would not have had the will to continue.
The conditions are not too bad but the water is very turbulent creating a ‘washing machine’ effect. It’s really the aftermath of all the strong winds we have had over the previous week. I keep thinking back to Mike’s comments about it being so calm it looked like it had been ironed out. I convinced myself that it would flatten out a bit He should know after all as he takes so many swimmers and is always looking at the weather. Also my mind was very much strengthened by the fact that all my training had been in the sea with waves and much colder temperatures and even during the winter too. In fact I was so resolute about getting across that I thought it didn’t really make any difference. I even started chanting to myself. ‘I’m not stopping until I get to France’ which you can do in quite a mantric and rhythmic way.
At the next drink time I try to tell them a joke or two and tell them they have to come up with one every hour. It’s amazing how quickly it changes the atmosphere when they see that you are just normal and perfectly fine out there swimming. I feel as if have made really good progress and that the land must be quite distant by now but I try hard not to look back. It’s amazing how close the coast can appear for a long time. Of course you then realise when you see the French coast just how far away it is despite how close it may seem. The boys seem to be happy and I notice that Prachar has moved on to learning songs so things must be good.
In his writings Sri Chinmoy has suggested all sorts of ways we can help ourselves get through these long distance events. He suggests imagining you are just 7 years old and playing in a flower garden getting tremendous joy and inspiration from each little flower. I tried to imagine I was just out for a fun swim playing in the warm water. This helps you enter into the flow of the heart more where you are not so concerned about time and distance as you are when you calculate with the mind. Of course the mind can’t help interjecting with its tuppence ha’penny and telling you that it would be unlikely for a compassionate father to leave his kid out in the sea for 19 hours and at night time too. Hard to win with the mind but you just need to be vigilant and find other ways around it. Generally after about 6 or 7 hours you are less affected by the troublesome thoughts.
All the training in the sea has helped me keep my head down more and stop looking up to see where I’m going. In fact with the boat following along at my side this is fairly easy and I decide early on that I will not lift my head to see what is up ahead of me. The wheel cabin on the boat is very close to the water and there is a little door there so you can see the pilot very easily which is much more reassuring. On previous swims I’ve often not been able to see them at all and you wonder if they can see you.
The water is a light milky blue colour and the sky is a deep blue with small whisps of fluffy white cloud. This is about as good as it gets with weather conditions. The water is warmer than usual although I do start to feel cold about halfway in to the swim. I told Devashishu to try and mix up the drink times, so rather than doing it always on the hour I suggested anything from 50 minutes to an hour and 10 minutes. That way I would not know how long I had been in for and it would be easier to convince my mind that I had been swimming longer. Anyway it seems like an eternity before they wave the big coloured swimming towel to indicate the first drink. I wonder if they decided to make it 2 hours for some reason. Afterwards they tell me it was an hour and 10 minutes.
I feel strong (still like it might be a world record!) and swim powerfully. The first shipping lane is about 5 miles off the coast so I start looking out for big ships. For some reason I don’t see them for quite a while and then when do see them they stay with us for longer than normal. That’s a little worrying but I imagine it’s because am swimming so fast somehow we are in a different part of the Channel from normal. Actually when look at the swim map afterwards I see that the spring tide had taken us a fair distance south-west before we cut across the lanes.
There seems to be more and more turbulence now but I decide it must be the tide turning combined with the wash from the big ships. At the next feed I suggest this to James, the other pilot, who is at the helm a lot of the time. He just smiles. I don’t know whether he couldn’t hear me or just didn’t want to disappoint me by saying that it would never get any better. The sun is shining and nobody seems to have a care in the world. Apart from me that is as it’s starting to get harder now. I seem to have managed to brainwash my mind completely into believing everything that I’m telling it. It’s usually the other way round but I have been working so hard on convincing it that we are getting to France over the last few months that is seems to have disappeared to cower in the corner somewhere.
The old fears don’t seem to be troubling me too much. In the past, no matter how well trained and enthusiastic you were, once you were out there getting chucked around by the turbulence you always vowed never to allow yourself to get back out there again. It’s as if for 5 years the mind managed to hold sway but this time it’s as if I have made the decision in full knowledge of the facts so there is no room for complaint. It was a totally free choice in some sense.
After about 6 hours or so my stomach really starts hurting. It is heavy, tight and sore, whilst my shoulders are not feeling sore at all which is a surprise. It feels as if if might be the runners’ gels that I have been having. I’ve only ever tried them once or maybe twice on a training swim in calm conditions. For a while I just crave fresh water and when they hand it down to me it’s like nectar. I dread being handed a sweet syrupy concoction of runners’ gels. In fact with the turbulence and not being able to get into my stroke I find I’m swallowing a lot of sea water which is really uncomfortable and is not helping the stomach – maybe it is the cause of it all. From this point on I really hardly eat at all. By the end I’ll have consumed 3 gels and about 3 bananas mixed up in rice milk.
I never normally like coke but it’s one of those things you buy just in case you might need it. Suddenly that is what I want and I request it from my helpers. It tastes like nectar and I decide that will be having more of that after the swim (does not transpire actually!). I have not been feeling nausea or sea sickness at all and in fact was fairly convinced I wouldn’t suffer from it after all the training in the open sea. I wonder if it might not have been better to have been sick after all, like on most previous swims, to clear the stomach a bit. You cn’t really win! Shortly after that I do start being a little sick and it helps clear things up. This becomes a bit of a theme for the next 10 hours of the swim! Of course there has long since been nothing left in there to be sick with so it becomes a kind of dry retching which clears the stomach and makes me feel energetic again.
I deliberately didn’t wear a watch and didn’t want to know the time. By this time I see that the sun is close to going down so assume it must be around 9pm. That means we’ve been going around 11 hours. I can see land but it’s hard to know exactly how far it is. I know that the next big event will be the passing down of the little light sticks so that they can see me in the dark. They seem to be taking their time with this and I think it must be because we are so close that it might not be necessary (at this stage it will be another 8 hours swimming!). Anyway the sticks appear which I think must be just a safety measure and I see that there is a lighthouse up ahead of us, on what I think is Cap Gris Nez (the peninsular that juts out which is the nearest point to England). This is always a long haul but it does not look too far. There is even less idea of stopping at this stage but later my helpers said that the pilot had told them it was not looking good at that point. They weren’t saying it wouldn’t happen but they could see we would get washed 15 miles east towards Calais with the tide.
This is the hardest bit now as it’s cold and I’ve no idea how far it is. Also I really don’t want to ask them in case it is forever. The bright light is shining in my face so can hardly see and if I venture out of it its beam then it feels a long way from the boat especially in the dark even though they can still see me fine. When I’m away from the light my hands rake through hundreds of tiny luminous particles of plankton glowing in the water. I look forward to having a closer look at these soon when am swimming in to the beach, I think to myself. At one feed Bahumanya says they have just seen a big shooting star. In all seriousness I tell them I’ll look at it later! Time certainly seems to be slowing up a little now. From thinking we might finish by 10pm (about a 12 hour swim) I joke to myself that it will probably start getting light again soon.
It continues for a long time like this. The spring tide is moving fast and takes us in a line from Cap Gris Nez parallel to the coast. Since the beach actually recedes a bit behind this line we are in fact further away at some points than we were an hour or two previously. Normally you can get inside the bay to the east of the Cap where the tide is much weaker and land on Wissant beach. I assume this is where we are aiming and that we can only be a mile or so away when I see two large ferries lit up between us and the beach. Ships are very well lit at night in a range of different colours for navigation purposes and this along with your heightened senses after having been in the water for so long make them seem like huge glowing objects in the dark. Devashishu tells me we are getting close to Calais and that we have about a mile and a half left. I’m not too concerned as know that as the ferries leave Calais they go along a channel about a mile off the beach so once I clear their path it cannot be too far.
I look up more and more now and am trying to figure out how close the beach is. I notice that is in fact starting to get light so we must have swum through the night! Then finally there is a point where the boat can go no further and you are left to swim in to the beach on your own. This is it and I decide to savour every last moment and soon I feel the sand under my feet and know that from here I can wade until I’m clear of the water.
It’s two and a half hours back on the boat and by the time we get back to the car it has been a 24 hour trip. We stop off at the Sainsbury’s cafe for breakfast again and this time it’s Devashishu who decides he wants a break from seeing mushrooms!
*Sri Chinmoy’s most sacred song.